One could (and we at TLO most certainly will) talk about this interview for days to come. Jürgen Klopp went on the Sky Sports broadcast of Monday Night Football—along with a clearly enamored Jamie Carragher—for a fascinating tactical discussion that gave viewers a small insight into the charismatic German’s football philosophy. Over the course of the 27 minute showcase, to which the matchup of the day between Burnley and Watford came a distant second in terms of appeal, fans were treated to a wide-ranging Q&A session on tactics, evolutions in playing styles as well as multiple hilarious replays of a young Klopp losing the ball as a defender for a goal in an important match during his playing days.
Most intriguing, however, was one of the final segments of the interview in which the Liverpool manager under questioning lets slip a potential key to taming the manic brand of counter-pressing that has defined his new-look side. In a young season in which Liverpool have already claimed the scalps of some of the most expensively-assembled squads in world football, including the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham as well as last year’s champions Leicester City, it was Red’s sole loss of the season, a 2-0 capitulation to lowly Burnley, that has puzzled.
Most viewers at the time, this correspondent included, attributed the loss to a number of factors: the absence of Sadio Mané to injury, Jordan Henderson’s inexperience in the holding role, the stagnancy of the front three in the final third and, of course, that ever-brittle back line. However, while he acknowledged the role those other aspects played in the defeat, Klopp pointed to the play of the Clarets’ two strikers Andre Gray and Sam Vokes as the key to beating his side.
“[Burnley] were really organized, but their biggest strength were the two strikers...they were quick, they kept the ball, they were unbelievably difficult to defend, Vokes [in particular] was very physical, [they had] speed. They were really strong.”
The two attackers were in fact particularly incisive on the ground and strong in the air in the match, with Gray completing two of his five take ons and Vokes winning nine of 14 aerial duels. Tellingly, both were also goal scorers, as they dominated the new look pair of Dejan Lovern and Ragnar Klavan on the day, not helped by Henderson’s naivete in failing to resist the urge to push up instead of dropping back to shield his defense.
Yes, they were good, with Gray’s goal being the highlight of the match, but how do they represent the secret to beating a Klopp team? Well the German spent a considerable amount of time earlier in the interview explaining the importance of the gegenpressing team’s two most advanced central players in bisecting the field upon his team losing possession, with the rest of the outfield players swarming accordingly and, importantly, without a rigidly-defined shape. While most readily apparent while on the ball themselves, his Liverpool squad operate under a philosophy that the player closest to the ball presses and everyone else simply adjusts.
A presenter on MNF jokingly referred to the manager’s preferred formation as resembling a 3-7 in which only the holding midfielder and the two center backs maintained any manner of strict positioning.
“I don’t think about a whether we have a false nine, or no nine, these players all have the responsibility to be in the box in all of the situations they can be. Not the center halves of course…[and] there is always one holding player that can be full back or a midfield player. But the rest? It’s all about being flexible.”
However, with the full backs under the mandate to provide virtually all of the attacking width in true Klopp-ian fashion, while the more advanced central midfielders are given license to push up with abandon, it is the coordination of this defensive contingent that is subsequently vital, as a mistake by any one of them during a change of possession potentially turns an opposition counter attack into an instant 2-v-2 with the strikers against the two defenders.
Gray’s game-ending goal was a classic example of this weakness, as when Steven Defour nips the ball off Daniel Sturridge just outside the Watford box and waltzes up the middle of the pitch, the closest Red, Philippe Coutinho inexplicably decides to give up the chase, forcing Klavan to commit and miss at the halfway line. With the advanced Clyne trailing the play and Milner nowhere to be found on the other side, Vokes and Gray split the final two Liverpool players, with the former playing the crucial role of partially-occupying Lovern’s attention on the left long enough for a 2-v-1 situation to develop between Gray to Henderson’s left and Defour with the ball down the center.
Gray still has much to do once he receives the ball on the edge of the box and takes it well to put the it in the back of the net, but the goal is ultimately still due to the vulnerability that the shapeless high press has to a well-orchestrated two forward counter attack in which the strikers stay high up the pitch and the opposition plays the early intelligent ball up to them.
Of consolation is the realization that, of the top European teams in recent years, only Manchester City and Juventus have regularly deployed a two forward set up, as the Barcelona-led revolution of midfielder primacy has come to the fore, meaning that this gengenpressing weakness is not under threat from any but the defensively-sound mid-table sides in the league. Matters are also made simpler when the attacking players stay completely plugged in defensively and counter-press as they did against Hull City, reducing the likelihood of the opposition springing an effective counter.
All of which is moot point, since despite the brilliance of watching the charismatic manager dazzle the onlookers on national TV, one almost wishes Klopp had deflected that particular question on how he can be beat and instead just let us all pretend it was those awful neon green away kits or something. Then again, with Jamie Carragher giving him those adoring looks, can you blame him?